I have deliberately ignored all the hype surrounding The Elder Scrolls Online, to the point of waiting outside the booth at GamesCom last year while friend and colleague Matt Porter attended Bethesda's presentation. I ignored offers of Beta keys and did not read a single forum thread about the game until today. The reason? Fortunes are spent on creating hype for games to create a positive perspective about a product we haven't even seen yet. When that product isn't precisely what our preconceptions told us it would be, we get angry. I wanted to avoid all that drama, and I'm so happy I did.
The Elder Scrolls Online takes place almost a century before the events of Skyrim, Oblivion, or Morrowind. Molag Bal, a Daedric Prince, is planning to merge his realm Coldharbour with Tamriel, creating a world of suffering. You awaken in Coldharbour, having already been sacrificed to the Daedric Prince, and have to make your way back to Tamriel with the help of The Prophet. You are shown what will become of Tamriel if Molag Bal is allowed to prevail and are then set on the path for the game's main storyline.
The opening scenes - and every other scene for that matter - are presented with the superb voice acting that we'd expect from an Elder Scrolls game. Every character in the game you can interact with is voiced which, given the sheer vastness of the world, is no small feat. Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Malcolm McDowell, and John Cleese are just some of the awe-inspiring artists who lend their talents to the characters populating the game world, breathing life into the lore we've all come to love.
There are so many quests, places to see and people to screw over that you'll never be forced to do anything you don't find interesting or go anywhere you don't want to be. In that way and in many others, this game holds true to the Elder Scrolls formula. In others, it does not.
The choice of races, for instance, will be familiar to any fan of the Elder Scrolls series though it will appear quite extensive to newcomers. The menu of classes, however, might seem a bit scarce and choosing under which sign you were born has been completely removed. Some may consider this 'dumbing down the game' but I could not care less as the zodiac sign bonuses weren't never that exciting to begin with. Other than the skimpy choice in classes and removal of the signs, the character customisation options are so robust that I doubt there will be many identical Khajiits running around backstabbing people.
Strangely enough, the game doesn't feature nearly as many skills as other Elder Scrolls games. Like in classic Elder Scrolls games, many skills increase through use but sneak and backstab damage don't appear to exist at all. Sneak is now class based which is quite a turn off for me. I've loved backstabbing people in every Elder Scrolls game I've played and expected a loud sound combined with a '2x Damage' prompt the first time I sunk my dagger into a skeever's back. That didn't happen. I cried a little. (editor: here's a hanky Ingvi)
I love crafting in MMOs and I am glad TESO's is both unique and fun. You are not tied to any specific crafting ability as the game will not inexplicably assume that since you know how to wield a pick axe, you can't possibly know how to pick flowers. If you find an iron vein, you can mine it; if you find some wood, you can chop it, etc. When you then fashion items out of your inventory, you get better at the applicable skill. To keep the pace, you are not required to equip a specific tool to craft. You can pick a flower and immediately get on the task of turning it into something that stops other things breathing.
This level of freedom makes for an interesting change in dynamics. Almost every other MMO has players relying on sharing, bartering, and socialising in order to get anything made. A powerful sword would require a blacksmith to contact a leather worker for materials for the handle and an enchanter for some magical essence. In TESO, one character can do all of the above himself. Enchantments from other items can be learned and added to items that you create, even if the process is painstakingly slow and requires the right ingredients.
That does put a level of strain on the inventory, which is no longer determined by encumbrance but based on slots. If you were the mule of the party before, you will be relieved to know that people will now stop nagging you about holding onto the pieces of worthless foodstuff they've picked up along the way but are too heavy for them to carry. Scarcity gives items value so you will think twice about what to pick up and what to leave behind.
Truly immersive virtual world. A new standard for MMORPGs.
The standard array of bugs a-la Elder Scrolls tradition.